Commentary: An early debate lead for Donald J. Trump but, in the end, he couldn't help his own cause

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
·5 min read

Nelson Algren once described the great American city of Chicago as “the place built out of man’s ceaseless failure to overcome himself.” He could just as well have been writing about Donald J. Trump.

Just consider the trajectory of the final presidential debate on Thursday night.

Trump performed far better than his hesitant rival Joseph R. Biden for a substantial chunk of the crucial confrontation. He spoke the language of recovery, of the reopening and rebuilding of America and, in doing so, probably came as close as he could ever manage to the morning-in-America rhetoric that worked so well for Ronald Reagan. Trump appeared sharp, as personally engaging as he ever gets and, when talking about his own history with the COVID virus, he even projected a note of humility and self-improvement. “I’ve learned some things,” he said.

Early on, the beleaguered president kept his temper in check and dropped his usual fatalist, playground-bully monotone (which always costs him votes) in favor of zestful rhetoric, moving more quickly from idea to idea than did Biden. For a man in his 70s who was pretty darn sick just a couple of weeks ago, it was an impressively fortitudinous few minutes.

Very.

Possibly a semiconscious tryout for media punditry, should the election not go so well.

Turning off the podium microphones had been mostly a reaction to the sarcastic, invasive way in which Trump made a mockery of the uninterrupted two-minute response in the first presidential debate. The decision, which hopefully will remain in perpetuity, helped two people.

One was the debate moderator, Kristen Welker of NBC News, who presided over by far the liveliest and least depressing of the three debates this election season, shrewdly coaxing and admonishing the two combatants. Because the core structure of the exercise was protected, Welker could allow a stimulating back and forth in the other sectors of the debate and she also had figured out that it was ineffective to tell a politician to stop talking and far more helpful to just go ahead and ask the next question. (That always confuses them enough that they at least pause.)

When you add the quality of the questions, this was a masterful and exceptionally fair-minded performance (if ever you are asked to do this, request you go last). Frankly, it served to calm everyone watching, or at least those of who believe that if our political debates cannot be effectively moderated and if the rules of engagement cannot be agreed upon, then our very democracy is at risk.

The other, of course, was Trump, a master of the pivot to whatever any given circumstances permit.

It did not particular serve Biden. Less, actually, than one might have reasonably expected and his early performance was halting enough to cause palpable alarm among the tweeting cadre of mainstream journalists who, in this particular election, mostly have abandoned any admonitions of their employers to remain even remotely impartial. It is a much under-reported development of the Fourth Estate, but, given what is at stake in this election, it’s a sideshow right now.

Trump, though, simply could not sustain this start, surely to the chagrin of any of the pragmatic advisers still in his employ, some of whom must have figured out by now that the base isn’t going anywhere but the base won’t be enough. His detailed answers were his strength; once again, his injections, and his pique, were his undoing.

The turning points were clear. Biden belatedly seemed to realize that he was up against a certified, trademarked brand-name and he finally responded in kind, telling Trump that it was he, Joe Biden, Joe Biden, who served as his opponent, not the also-rans from the primary. He turned Obamacare of the past into Bidencare of the future. He replied to Trump’s criticism of the inactions of the Obama administration with a subtle separation: this time, he said, he will be in the driving seat. Not the other more famous guy.

Joe. Joe Biden. President Joe Biden.

This rattled Trump. His behavior did not cross boundaries he previously had driven over in an armored truck, but he lost his mojo and resorted to more dangerous improvisations, including his disastrous interjection of the word “good” (or maybe “go ahead,” it doesn’t matter which), following Biden’s accusations that his administration intentionally separated immigrant children from their parents. Liberal twitter went into a frenzy. At that moment, the president of the United States at least appeared to be celebrating the pain of young kids. Not wise, just a matter of days before an election. Not a move designed to sway the undecided voter. Not a necessary thing to say. His advisers must have clutched their skulls in either despair or resignation. Who knows? They’re probably all plotting their next move.

Trump’s churlish tone returned. In the debate’s closing minutes, the straight-arrow rhetoric of hope and jobs and investment had to fight for very limited time available with the man’s own profound sense of personal grievance, about which very few people whose name is not Trump care.

Trump did not really have all that much to beat, but, in the end, he still couldn’t help himself.

Great audition, though, for a different job. There, you’ll be able to relax into yourself.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Chris Jones is chief theater critic and culture columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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